Download Damage

Kate Hennessy investigates the real world impacts of our online lives.

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Remember all that 'Y2K bug' hysteria? Predictions of social collapse; survivalists stockpiling tinned food and water? We may laugh now but the fear of worldwide calamity on New Year's Eve 1999 was real. Founded on deep-seated concern that we were too reliant on technology, now, 10 years later, we're even more hooked.

The Internet is at the heart of our global addiction to technology. Colossal amounts of digital data pulse around the world every second via undersea cables, delivered to around 1.73 billion people. We lap it up and demand more. With so much information exchanged in an instant, we hardly think about the impact of our electronic actions. But how green are our online lives?

Every time you hit the Google search button, about 0.2 grams of carbon dioxide is created, according to research by Harvard University physicist, Alex Wissner-Gross.

It's sobering news for anyone who envisaged digital data as virtual bits and bytes drifting harmlessly through cyberspace. Google is right to state that 0.2 grams of carbon is a tiny amount. But with around one billion Google searches made every day, it adds up.

Besides, searching is just the gateway drug. A few more keystrokes and we work, talk, bank, romance, study, watch, listen, research and download. We're so fond of the Internet we carry it around with us, zapping into an ever-growing array of wireless broadband signals. Even scruffy young travellers lug laptops from one Wi-Fi enabled hostel to the next so they can chat with friends at home using Skype.

Data downloads

In mid-2007, a report to US Congress by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed what executives at the online behemoths already knew: our brave, new, Internet-obsessed world is chewing up extraordinary amounts of energy. The energy used by American data centres in 2006 was roughly the same as that used by 5.8 million US. households.

These mysterious data centres house computer servers and other critical IT equipment. In the same way your personal computer stores, processes and 'serves' data to you, a data centre 'serves' data to hundreds, thousands or millions of dispersed users via the Internet. Think of it as one big computer that manages the rest.

By 2011, the EPA told Congress, the data centre industry will require an additional 10 coal-fired or nuclear power plants to support it. A report by consulting firm McKinsey projected emissions from data centres will exceed those of airlines by 2020.

Surfing the ocean cables

Websites like Google and Facebook have huge and energy-hungry data centres, as do Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Optus and Telstra. Data centres across the world cooperate to bring you information. But why do they use so much power?

Take the journey of a video. Assume the video resides at a 'host' data centre in America. Packed within this data centre are densely spaced servers, whirring constantly. A rigorously controlled environment is crucial - designed for computers, not people. The servers are extremely high-tech machines, powering away 24/7, so they emit loads of heat. Air-conditioning and other cooling methods keep the temperature low and humidity in check. Cooling can, in fact, account for half of a centre's total energy use.

Because that video, and the other data in the centre, is treated as valuable property, it's frequently "insured" by energy-intensive back-up processes, says David Blumanis, a data centre advisor at APC by Schneider Electric.

"Data gets backed up every night," says Blumanis. "Then, each month, the data centre might do a full 'restore'. This consumes an entire IT server and involves back-up tapes. The tapes need to be stored off-site, so there are trucks coming and going."

Once you've requested the video, it travels from the US to Australia via fibre optic cables in the ocean floor. When it arrives, it's transmitted to you through your ISP's network and 'cached' (stored) locally at that ISP's data centre. This means next time someone wants the same video, it's quicker to retrieve. It also means the video is duplicated in both America and Australia, requiring the same series of energy-intensive processes to keep it safe and readily available. If you save that video on your hard drive it's duplicated yet again. If you also back-up your private data to an external hard drive, that's four separate instances of the same video!

It doesn't end there

In case of trouble, fire protection systems, security cameras and back-up power supplies are deployed. "You can imagine what would happens if a company like Google went off air - it would be world news," says Blumanis. The energy stacks up at every step.

"[Some] data centres can consume enough energy to run a small country town," says Blumanis. "Australia's newest and largest data centre is a six-storey building that has its own substation in it!"

To keep up with demand, data centres are proliferating faster now than ever before. "Right now, companies like YouTube, Yahoo! and telecommunication companies are building massive data centres on the end of the ocean cables to join all the networks around the world."

They're usually secret buildings with no signs to attract attention, says Blumanis. "I used to manage Telstra's data centre. Due to its high security nature we couldn't disclose its real purpose and there was some community protests because people assumed it was creating the Australia Card [the proposed national ID card] and was full of secret tunnels!"

But where's all that demand coming from?

Deluge of data

More than 17 million Australians are internet users - 80 per cent the population. And 85 per cent of whom search the net daily.

Tom McQueen is the marketing manager at Adelaide-based ISP, Internode. He says between 2000 and 2005, Internode's data quota got 64 times larger and download speed got 50 times faster. Back in 2000, most Internode customers were paying $44 per month for a slow dial-up service with a quota of 250 Megabytes (Mb) per month. By way of comparison, 250Mb is equivalent to just 80 medium-resolution digital photos.

"Now," says McQueen, "forty-nine dollars buys 50 gigabytes per month." That's a lot of pictures of the kids! Photos, however, have been leap-frogged by the real data-chewer: video. Networking company Cisco predicts that by 2013 video will exceed 90 per cent of global Internet traffic, multiplying the total amount of traffic by five.

McQueen agrees information is "richer" than ever. "There's more data for the same things," he says. "It used to be a text email, now it's HTML. A straight news story is video now. This richer experience results in higher file sizes. Even mobiles come with decent amounts of data packaged in. The national broadband network will provide even greater speeds and download quotas."

It's not just the fun stuff that's on the rise. Commercial data needs are poised to leap a gigantic 650 per cent over the next five years. But those PowerPoint, Word and Excel files on your hard drive at work are just the start of your boss's storage woes.

"Companies are increasingly subject to regulations that require the collection and storage of digital information," says the US EPA.

Long-term storage of electronic records such as email is often required. Government, too, adds to the data load with high performance scientific computing, electronic health records and services like e-tax.

Carbon links

The volume of carbon you create depends on what you do online. Estimates by Wissner-Gross suggest browsing a basic website generates about 20 milligrams (mg) of CO2 per second. If there's video content, the figure inches closer to 300 mg of CO2 per second.

As green consumers, then, should we monitor and moderate our time online? Or avoid websites with rich content altogether? Founder of carbon-offset company Carbon Planet, Dave Sag, believes this might do more damage than good.

"The whole point of the modern environmental movement is not to put us back in a hair shirt in a cave," he says. "It seems like a retrograde step to take away the social interaction and benefits people get from YouTube and Facebook."

In any case, says Sag, the carbon footprint of a Twitter post, for example, is "sod all".

"The main emissions culprit is Twitter's own data centre, where billions of tweets are aggregated, and there you have an opportunity. You only have to green that data centre to have the most bang for your buck."
"Sod all" it may be but we're told that small, green efforts add up. Plenty of people happily pay to bundle carbon offsets with air tickets. So, could a website suggest: "Do you want to offset that upload?"

"Sure," says Sag. "But no carbon registry in the world will work in micrograms or microtransactions. They want to work in tonnes."

Even if a viable model were to emerge, a free service like Facebook would be unlikely to ask users to cough up for its carbon costs. The backlash would be monumental. After all, people have grown used to not paying for the web version of the same paper they'll happily fork over coins for in print.

Consumer power

We can, however, make a huge difference with the devices we use to access the Internet. Because we're online so much, our computers and iPhones stay powered up all day. Our wireless modems often flicker, forgotten, throughout the night. We're using more energy-intensive devices, and more of them. Modems, routers and media centres have joined the swag, plus external hard drives to store our expanding digital loot.
"It takes a lot of power to keep an iPhone happy - I charge mine three times a day," admits Sag. "My wife charges her old phone once a week!"

According to Wissner-Gross, "The dominant contribution [to the footprint of a typical website experience] comes from the electricity consumed by its visitors' computers".

Using the most energy-efficient devices possible to access the Internet, or switching to green power, means you cancel out the impact of your home browsing. Once data reaches Australia, you have the option to choose a local 'green' ISP. In 2008 Internode fully offset its previous carbon emissions by purchasing 3,900 carbon credits and since then has used 100 per cent GreenPower in its two data centres.

"If you have GreenPower in your home and there's GreenPower in the data centre you can surf fairly guilt-free," confirms Sag.

Beyond that, your control as a consumer over how your data is managed drops away. The journey of information is too hard to trace.

"One keystroke on a BlackBerry can travel through 20 plus servers around the world and multiple data centres," says Blumanis. "Google … has publically stated that whenever someone does a single search it activates over 7,000 servers."

Industry advances

Fortunately, rising energy costs are stimulating the data centre industry more widely to make strides towards energy efficiency. Google became exasperated years ago with available solutions for its gargantuan data stores and began designing its own. The company claims its custom-built data centres use 80 per cent less electricity than conventional facilities.

Google Australia 'innovationist', Justin Baird, says Google is also upping its use of renewable energy and finding viable carbon offset options.

That's hardly surprising. Google is in the business of ever-escalating data. It relies on advertising dollars, ads need eyeballs, and eyeballs need a constant stream of fresh content. Unlike news media, which pays journalists for content, YouTube (owned by Google) needs its users to contribute this content.
"We want our users to continue to unleash their creativity and share their talents with a global audience," encourages YouTube. "In fact," it boasts, "every minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded."

The US government is helping the industry improve its game by granting Yahoo!, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard A$20 million for energy-efficiency projects. In 2009, Yahoo! unveiled plans to build a data centre powered primarily by hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls.

Innovative new techniques - like building data centres in cold places to use outside air for cooling - are helping too. A public energy company in Finland plans to recycle data centre heat to generate hot water for Helsinki, and countries like Iceland - with ready supplies of hydroelectric and geothermal energy - are marketing themselves aggressively as great locations for data centres.

Back in January 2010, Facebook announced it too was planning to build a custom-made data centre to manage the ballooning data from its 350 million users. "We have come a long way from our roots in a Harvard dorm room," blogged Facebook's Jonathan Heiliger.

The expanding virtual world

The populations of Africa and the Middle East are coming online fast. "The number of people online is going to double again in the next 10 or 20 years and with that will come more demand," says Sag.

Blumanis agrees. Data centre efficiencies are going up, he acknowledges, but data sources are going neck to neck, rivalling these advances.

Internet technologies do, of course, deliver myriad benefits for our environment. Video conferencing like Skype prevents many unnecessary business flights. From an energy perspective, buying music online is "clearly superior" than going to the CD store, according to research by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University. And any car trip the Internet can replace the need for is doing our atmosphere an immense favour, something Google has not overlooked in its public relations efforts.

"An average 2.5-mile [4 km] car trip consumes some 5,000 times the energy of one Google search," says Google's Baird.

But next time you spend two hours online uploading YouTube footage of your baby's first steps, spare a thought for all those hot, whirring servers, half a world away.